Posted by: patenttranslator | May 23, 2014

Trust – The Most Important Component of a Sound Working Relationship – Is Absent In The Large Translation Agency Model


The corporate business model has in the last few decades transformed the landscape of life in this and many other countries. You can drive from California all the way to the Atlantic ocean and you will see the same names of the same stores gracing the same suburban shopping malls that look exactly the same from outside and inside, located near the same sprawl of cookie cutter bedroom communities where, as somebody put it once, love goes to die.

On the one hand, it is a reassuring and comforting feeling that no matter where we are, we know what will be on the menu at the Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday, or Pizza Hut.

And since we know what the restaurant will look like inside, we don’t even have to ask where the restrooms are. That is an important part of the reassuring and comforting design. We are not expected to ask questions. If by any chance somebody still has questions, answers have been already provided and they can be accessed in a computer database, printed out and distributed to friendly and helpful, albeit grossly underpaid, personnel.

Everything has been standardized, unified, precut and preassembled for us ahead of time. When we go to vote – and the numbers of those of us who still bother to vote, which is typically less than half of registered voters in this country, are rapidly dwindling – we can either vote for a D or for an R, both enthusiastically preapproved and fully funded by the same giant and enormously profitable corporations and giant and enormously profitable banks.

Unlike the rest of us, the biggest of these enormously profitable corporate enterprises generally pay no taxes in this country.

Oh, what a thrill it is to watch the results on TV on those excitement-filled election nights when we finally find out whether it was the Rs or the Ds who won this time around!


The corporate model has been also applied and perfected in the past two decades to what is often called for lack of a better term the translation industry. Large translation agencies also typically use the same corporate business model. The differences between the pre-corporate model of translation agencies and the modern corporate model are clearly visible, but perhaps only to those of us who have been cranking out translations for all kinds of customers for a few decades. In my case, it would be close to three decades.

Take the example of so-called Non-Disclosure Agreements (“NDAs”). Only some fifteen years ago, NDAs typically had around 150 words, and their purpose was to protect confidentiality of customer’s documents.

The NDA that I was sent this week from a translation agency with offices in United Kingdom, Spain and Germany, which wanted to recruit me for a long-term project, had 6,977 words. There was a lot of “whereas” in it, and a lot of definitions of the rules that I as a translator, undoubtedly just one of thousands translators who would be entered into a huge database of translators and would-be translators had I signed the agreement, would need to follow to the letter.

A decade or two ago, there was a certain amount of trust between two professional parties called translators and translation agencies – that is why the agreements were so short. In the corporate translation agency model, the trust has completely disappeared – that is why the new agreements are so long.

Although about a half a page was dedicated in this agreement, which had 6,977 words, to the manner in which invoices had to be presented by the translator, the payment terms were not specified.

So, although I was not going to sign it anyway, I asked the person who was communicating with me on behalf of a translation agency with offices in three countries whether they would pay in 30 days. Call me unreasonable, but since I have to pay my bills and credit cards within 30 days, I expect my creditors to pay me in 30 days as well.

“60 days.” was the terse answer. The worker bees called translators who work for the corporate type of translation agency simply have to figure out what to eat during the additional 30 days when they are forced to wait for their money, while their bills remain unpaid and keep stacking up.

I hear that tree bark, while somewhat bitter, is still free at this point, can provide sustenance, and is quite filling.

Fortunately, people are starting to realize that corporate model is not all that it is cranked up to be.

Small family restaurants keep popping up even in suburbs and in otherwise bland and uniform shopping malls. Small restaurants do have some advantages over corporate chains. They offer a completely different menu, which often depends on the personality and the country of origin of the restaurant owner. The profits generated by restaurants are not siphoned off by anonymous shareholders thousands of miles away, while the people doing the actual work are paid minimum wage. The profits stay with the actual owners of small, family restaurants because these are the same people who work in these restaurants, and thus will be reinvested in local economy.

It is simply no longer possible to find a large translation agency that would pay good rates to translators, and pay them on time. Just about every week I ignore several e-mails or calls from large agencies with a promise of work for this mad patent translator. Yesterday it was an e-mail from another agency somewhere in Europe that is bidding on a large project involving translation from “all Euro languages”, including some of those that I translate. They wanted me to fill out an online questionnaire and send them a copy of my university diploma and references.

Why in the world would I want to waste my time with something like that? I don’t even know whether they will land the project, how much they pay, and how soon. (Wait, I realized that I do know the answer to the last two points. It seems to be a fairly large agency, so they pay peanuts, in sixty days.)

The most important component of the relationship between a translation agency and a translator is trust. In the old, pre-corporate model, the agency trusted the translator because the people running the enterprise, often former translators themselves, knew him or her personally, and thus knew exactly what the translator was really good at.

And the same was true also about the translators.

In the new, corporate model, the often clueless project managers know only that the translators can no longer be trusted. That is why one of the clauses in theses 7,000-word-long agreements is often that should the translation agency in its wisdom decide to sue the translator, the translator will have to pay the legal costs.

It is my considered opinion that the best way to deal with the large translation agencies  is to completely ignore them and concentrate on direct customers and very small agencies.That is what I have been doing and will continue to do for as long as I keep translating.


Incidentally, I did find a new translation agency customer this year: a tiny, one-person translation agency with a name that sounded exactly like the name of a tiny agency that I used to work for quite a bit in the nineties, until it seemingly disappeared into thin air at the beginning of this century.

It turned out that the owner of the agency retired and sold it a few years ago. So instead of working for a one-man agency, I am now occasionally working for a one-woman agency, an agency that has the same name, uses the same business principles and works with the same translators who are still listed in its ancient files.

In other words, the kind of translation agency that both translators and customers can still trust these days.


  1. Amen!! 🙂


  2. I’ve received the same email from that European translation agency… And, like you, I’ve decided to ignore it.


  3. Due to their business method, they might be stuck with translators who are still a little wet behind the ears.

    Maybe a longer NDA would fix this tiny problem?


  4. The ones asking you to submit your details for them to participate in a EU tender are the ones to really watch out for, Steve. It is a well-known fact that they will collect details of qualified translators so in the tender process they can demonstrate the “expertise” of all the translators they have at their beck and call. They might even accept your “high” rates just to get you on their books.

    If they win the tender (and it is usually the ones with the lowest prices, who win), don’t expect them to give *you* any work. They will give it to the cheapest translator on their books whose name might not even have been included in the list of qualified translators they submitted to the EU. After all, there is no-one to check that. Your name is just there to “decorate” their list, as it were.

    This is one of the reasons why I won’t participate in tenders. The other is obviously price.


    • I know. The last time I supplied this information to an unknown agency (in England, including a copy of my university diploma), was about 10 years ago.

      Never heard from them again, so I don’t do that anymore.


  5. Thank you… very inspiring, thank you for the warning about Translation Corp. Inc. I’m still a student majoring in translation (English to French), everything you wrote is now engraved in my mind: thanks to you I will never eat tree bark!


    • “Thank you… very inspiring”

      As was your comment for me.


  6. I really enjoyed the opening video but I didn’t watch it until I’d already thoroughly absorbed your “wisdom of the day”. 🙂


  7. My original and revolutionary concept is that one should do both at the same time, at least during the initial reading of the first paragraphs … sort of like eating a good meal while drinking a good wine.

    But some people don’t even click on the videos, while I was also told by other people that they come here mostly for the videos.


  8. I decided to ask the relevant EU agency how they ensure that the translators whose professional profiles were submitted would be doing the work.
    Here’ the reply:
    Thank you very much for your e-mail.

    In accordance with Article I.11.7 of the Model Framework Service Contract, by derogation to the terms of Article II.7, where necessary in order to comply with the obligations of this contract, the Contractor may subcontract part of the work allocated to him under the terms of this contract to freelance translators without prior approval of the Commission, provided that the contractor has assurance on the professional capacity of the subcontractors to perform the translation services at the required quality standards.

    Therefore, it is the sole responsibility of the Contractor(s) to fulfil its (their) agreements with the freelance translators (subcontractors).

    All documentation and information regarding this call for tender can be found on e-tendering:

    Please note that for transparency reasons, your question (without your personal details), as well as our answer, will also be published on e-tendering.

    Best regards,

    Dorota PLUCINSKA

    European Commission
    Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology

    IOW: we don’t (want to or can’t).

    I’ve also asked the agency that invited everybody to submit their qualifications to explain how they plan to allocate the work after winning the tender. In view of my advancing age, I do not expect a satisfactory answer in MY lifetime 🙂


    • Why can’t somebody like Ms. Plucinska demand that a contract can be awarded only when and if the identities and qualifications of the translators who will in reality work on it are known?

      Otherwise, what is the point of asking for qualifications of translators in a tender?


  9. I always regarded trust to be the single most important component of a relationship between a professional and his or her client. After all, if you do not understand or cannot do something yourself, you have to trust someone to do it, do it properly, and do it in a manner that ensures your interests are protected (expertise, confidentiality, advice, etc.). Of course, the ‘industry’ are not part of the profession, only we are.
    An intermediary interposed between professional and client, deletes this essential part of the relationship.


  10. “Of course, the ‘industry’ are not part of the profession, only we are”

    Be that as it may, the problem is that they (corporate translation agencies treating translators like easily replaceable cheap help instead of the real creators of translations) end up handling most of the translation business.


  11. In my reply and thank-you-note to Ms. Plucinska I suggested that the names of the translators should be embedded in any translated document, which is easy enough to achieve with modern technology. Given that agencies will no doubt see this as having the potential of reducing their lucrative edge in market power, I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

    You are right when you say that the large corporates will continue to handle most of the translation work. What I would like to see is that the relatively small portion of translation work that has to be of a quality standard requiring professional translators, goes directly to professional, specialised translators, rather than being funnelled through agencies.

    This can only be achieved (eventually) if we start differentiating the ‘profession’ from the ‘industry’ in the minds of potential clients.

    For the corporates to handle translations requiring a specialised , professional translator like you Steve, has a number of negative effects: it builds in the risk of reducing the quality of outcomes by interposing a PM between client and translator, it creates downward pressure on fees because of the competitive nature in which the ‘industry’ sells its services, and it has the effect of drastically reducing translator incomes by taking a hefty margin from already reduced prices, without adding (indeed potentially reducing) value.


  12. Hi Steve, I just realized, reading your mention of the videos in your blogs, that I meant to thank you for the Cat Stevens’ video you included some time ago – I loved it and went on to google him and read about his life and music… very interesting and inspirational.


  13. It was “Morning Has Broken”, right?

    I will have another Cat Stevens song framing a silly post on my blog soon.


  14. […] 24/05/2014 Trust – the most important component of a sound working relationship – is absent in the … by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]


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